Visit From a Ghost of Christmas Past

When I think back on it, this was a tremendous parenting strategy. As kids, we got to experience a moment of pure magic. And, the adults got to have adult time without any worry of interruption. Brilliant.

Winter 2021, Lenox, Massachusetts
We are graced to have this tranquil setting as our backyard.

I like the reflective side of the winter.

Though I am an only child, I grew up observing Christmas in a hardworking, blue-collar, boisterously joyful extended family. The adults worked hard every day. They worked harder at the holidays pulling double and triple duty to make everything as perfect as it could be for unexpected, but always welcomed holiday visitors. Homemade baked goods, home-cooked seasonal favorites, snacks of all kinds, and every drink imaginable for kids and adults were on hand and at the ready. Christmas eve at my parents' was an open house with neighbors, friends, and family coming and going until the wee hours of the morning.

Somewhere between 10 and 11 pm, my grandfather would leave the party because he had to get up early on Christmas day. Not only did he work full-time for the local industrial plant, but he also worked on a small dairy farm. It was nothing like the massive animal-agri-farms of today. But any size farm with animals needs tending every day—and that day starts early! So I'd watch him leave the house and then go back to whatever had previously captured my attention.

As kids, we didn't know that our grandfather possessed an old paper sack full of sleigh bells. Shortly after he'd driven away, the sleigh bells would start jingling, almost imperceptibly, from a distance. Then they'd get louder as they got closer, and there was no mistaking the sound of Santa! The kids in the house at that moment, myself included, would bolt from window to window to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus while my parents diligently directed us to windows our grandfather had already passed.

Growing up about 45 minutes from Philadelphia International Airport came as a great assistance to the adults. They could almost always find a blinking red light in the sky to draw our attention. "It's Rudolph!" And then the scurry would begin for me to get ready for bed while my cousins begged their parents to go home. No one wanted to miss Santa! And we all knew you had to be asleep in bed for Santa to arrive at your house. It was the only night of the year any of us went to bed willingly.

When I think back on it, this was a tremendous parenting strategy. As kids, we got to experience a moment of pure magic. We could ride that excitement all through the month of January as we'd recount, for anyone who would listen, just how close we got to seeing Santa Claus—The Real Deal, not his mere department store helpers. And, the adults got to have adult time without any worry of interruption. Brilliant.

And then there's our grandfather... how hilarious it must have been for him to hear how he just missed Santa each year! He never gave away his secret, and it was a few delightful years before we caught on. While I was outside playing on a couple of occasions, I found a sleigh bell that fell out of the old paper sack in our yard. It was 100% proof of Santa's existence.

I have very fond memories of those times and all the people who visited at that time of year. Many of those people I saw only once a year on Christmas eve. Still, even with the childhood excitement of Santa and presents and rarely seen friends, I leaned toward introspection.

A moment from Winter Lights at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts

My favorite part of the holidays was church. The Methodist Church I attended held an annual kids' birthday party for Jesus on Christmas eve. Dr. Campbell, our very cool reverend, would tell us of the birth of Christ, and we'd be served birthday cake and some kind of nondescript sugary, Christmas-red juice. The serious little me that I was, felt like I was finding a deeper meaning in the season through these birthday parties as I rode that sugar high the rest of the evening.

I sang with the children's choir and absolutely loved when we performed "Go Tell It On the Mountain." I'd been listening to Mahalia Jackson sing that song at Christmas since I'd been born. Her Christmas album was part of my parents' vinyl album collection.

By the time I was old enough to go to candlelit midnight services on Christmas Eve, I was hooked. The fullness of the experience brought out goodwill in everyone. It was an experience of contentment and connection in all its purity.

My journey has taken me a long way from those days, and I'm okay with that. Life is an evolution. So when I look back on that time, I consider it the first step of my spiritual journey. A decade ago, The Guardian published a piece titled An atheist at Christmas: Oh come all ye faithless by Alain de Botton, one of my favorite philosophy-explaining authors. There seems to be something about the rituals of Christmas that have a strong appeal to many others who don't follow Christianity or subscribe to any religion necessarily. De Botton explores the phenomenon from his personal experience with his usual humor, understanding, and insight. As my inclination to attend services waned with the years, de Botton's words resonated deeply with me. I remain drawn to the Christmas music, rituals, stillness, and reflective moments of the season, but what the season means to me isn't based on religion at all.

A moment from Hancock Holiday Nights at Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts

This year, a friend I hadn't heard from in a while reached out. Being in touch with her made me remember the last midnight service I attended. It was at her small, country congregation Catholic Church in rural southern New Jersey. I attended for the music and palpable energy of goodwill. I left that night teary with the same calming feelings of contentment and connection those services stirred in me when I was a child.

So, for all of my friends—near and far—you are all on my mind during this season. When I light the candles, play the music, and sit quietly with my thoughts, you are there with me. And I wish for all of you that you have found contentment and connection in the lives that you've built.

Merry Christmas, everyone.